Feature Photo (above): The state of the art gymnasium of Prosper High School in Prosper ISD, Collin County. Image: Google Streets.
Texas voters face $10.3 bil in bond proposals in May
By Edmond Ortiz
More than 50 Texas cities, counties and school districts are proposing a combined $10.3 billion in bond issues in the May 4 elections.
Many of these communities are extensions of major metropolitan areas, such as Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, that continue to experience significant residential and commercial growth. A direct result is the unrelenting pressure to respond to the demands placed on these school districts and suburbs by population growth.
However, existing debt, taxable values and worries about a state-mandated revenue cap affecting how these entities propose their bond packages.
Cleveland ISD’s Population Storm
A cluster of portable buildings are crammed into the north end of the campus at Cleveland ISD’s high school. Image: Google Streets/Dec. 2018.
Cleveland Independent School District (CISD), outside of Houston, is one of the state’s fastest-growing school districts. Student enrollment increased from 3,598 in 2011-2012 to nearly 6,700 this winter.
The district has struggled to keep pace this burgeoning enrollment, in spite of voter-passage of bonds in 2006, 2015 and 2017. CISD has set up 53 portable classroom buildings districtwide to relieve crowded schools, and plans to add up to 25 more over the next year.
Cleveland ISD now is floating a $250 million package to try and further relieve the overcrowding. If approved, half of the bond would go toward building a new elementary school and a new middle school.
The district would hold the remaining bond monies in trust until it can sell those bonds in order to construct a new high school.
The challenge is that Cleveland ISD is a property-poor school district with property values estimated at $235,000 per student. Eighty-eight percent of ClSD’s student population is considered economically disadvantaged, and the district still has outstanding debt from the previously approved bonds.
Superintendent Dr. Darrell Myers told Virtual Builders Exchange that CISD’s growth is outpacing the district’s ability to raise its revenue stream, and is straining the district’s maintenance and operations.
“We are growing at such a rate that we are struggling to keep up. As of right now, the projects we have building from the previous two bonds would accommodate us currently; however, we have been gaining approximately 90 students a month,” Myers said. “We have been told this next year it will increase to approximately 120 students a month.
“With that much of an increase, we will be behind in buildings, again. In other words, the addition to our high school and the new elementary if it opened today, it would be full. Next year, we would be overflowing again.”
An approved bond would increase the district’s debt service tax rate from 37.5 cents per $100 valuation to 50 cents.
Myers said if the bond fails, the district must look at options, such as establishing portable campuses, holding year-round classes, or a tax ratification election to increase the maintenance and operations tax rate.
He acknowledged some skepticism among district residents: “There are some opposition. Our community, like others are taxed but when our community looks at the whole picture, they do realize the amount of growth we are occurring.
Construction work on a new high school facility at Cleveland ISD. Image: Google Streets/Dec. 2018.
Prosperity in Prosper ISD
Compare Cleveland ISD with Prosper Independent School District, another fast-growing school district in Texas. Located in Collin County north of Frisco, on the northern edge of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, Prosper ISD’s student population went from 12,469 last year to 14,665 today. Enrollment is projected to reach 32,800 by 2025.
If approved, PISD’S $1.33 billion bond package will not change the school property tax. Because it is property-rich, with values estimated at $435,000 per student, Prosper ISD plans to use existing and future projected tax revenues to fund projects from an approved 2019 bond.
The majority share of that bonds, $1.12 billion,would go to build nine or 10 elementary schools, four or five middle schools, and two new high schools. The remainder, more then $208 million, would be set aside to buy land for future schools, build a performing arts center, a natatorium, a new administrative building, and to make upgrades to the bus fleet, campus security, IT, communications systems, playground equipment and aging HVAC systems.
PISD school board members had initially voiced concern about the projected rise in student enrollment and whether voters would experience sticker shock at the polls. But, as trustee Michelle McBride pointed out in the Feb. 13 board meeting, “Everyone is so anxious for us to get new schools.”
Several other school districts and small cities in the Dallas and Houston areas are floating significant bond packages.
Dallas County Community College District (DCCCD) has a $1.1 billion tax neutral proposition for a new Dallas Education and Innovation Hub downtown to serve the entire county. The hub would include a business training center and a redesigned El Centro College downtown campus.
DCCCD’s bond would also renovate and expand existing facilities, build a collaborative student learning space, and enhance industry-aligned education and training programs.
The City of Frisco proposes $283 million total in multiple propositions for street, parks and public safety improvements, expanding the public works facility, and turning a city building into a library.
Voters in Garland will consider $423.7 million total in multiple propositions for various improvements, from infrastructure to parks and recreation, as well as support for economic development and neighborhood revival programs, and a new animal shelter.
Back in the Houston area, Conroe Independent School District is proposing $807 million for new schools, renovations and additions at existing schools, technology and transportation upgrades, and land purchases.
Cy-Fair Independent School District is floating a $1.76 billion package to fund several new campuses, safety and security upgrades and renovations at existing facilities, transportation and technology improvements.
Organized opposition to most of these proposals does not appear to exist. There are a few exceptions.
Voters in Nederland Independent School District, southeast of Beaumont, will consider a double-proposition totaling $155 million bond. All but $4 million would be dedicated to building a new high school, and renovations and additions to four existing elementary schools and two existing middle schools. Those monies would also support districtwide technology, safety and security upgrades.
The second proposition would allocate $4.5 million to improve the district’s stadium.
Pro- and anti-bond groups have emerged in Nederland ISD. Supporters have chimed in on the Facebook page of the pro-bond group, Building Tomorrow’s Leaders.
Resident Ron Nichols said there he was initially skeptical of the bond, and the community’s ability to absorb the proposed amount of debt. But after talking with students and faculty and toured current facilities, Nichols admitted to a change of heart in a Facebook post : “This election is about whether or not the community should support the future of our city. That starts with the schools. The schools that have been over crowded and above capacity for over two decades.”
Opposition persists, however. Bond proposition critic Philip Klein said online that local taxpayers would take a big hit, and that the district is not forthcoming about true long-term costs of construction if voters were to approve both proposals: “Don’t be fooled by smoke and mirrors,” Klein added on Facebook.
Conroe ISD’s bond proposition has received a mixed response. One political action committee, Children’s Hope, issued a statement, saying the bond would do nothing to positively affect educational outcomes and that taxpayers would be saddled with debt if it were to be approved.
“The bond package only seems to benefit the politicians on the CISD school board, the school district’s vendors, and the highly paid administrative bureaucracy,” the statement added. Many local Republican officials appear to be part of this opposition group.
Standing with Conroe ISD, another local conservative PAC, Texas Patriots, expressed confidence in the district’s ability to be fiscally responsible in implementing approved projects.
A student walks through the parking lot of the Moorehead football stadium on the campus of Conroe High School. Image: Google Streets.
Meanwhile, the Texas Legislature Deliberates
While local governments propose issuing new debt, the 86th Texas Legislature meets in regular session until May 27. Lawmakers are discussing their own proposals that could have wide-ranging implications on public school districts and cities.
Debate and haggling over bills have emerged in each chamber. So far, legislators have proposed billions of dollars in public school financing.
Legislators also have yet to determine the extent of promised property tax reform, and whether that should apply to school districts and cities. Many state lawmakers this session have proposed lowering the property tax rollback rate from 8 percent to 2.5 percent.
A version of a Senate bill required a city to hold an election if it wants to exceed the 2.5 tax revenue percent cap. It’s unknown whether this would apply to all cities or those with a specific revenue threshold.
Groups advocating for municipalities, such as the Texas Municipal League, are putting the burden of tax reform on school districts.
“Meaningful tax relief can come only from the lowering of school district property taxes, something both chambers claim to be supportive of,” TML said in a legislative update in late March. “But if school taxes are not fixed by the end of the session, the pressure on legislators to just cap cities and counties and try to claim some kind of victory on property taxes will be tremendous.”
Texas Association of School Boards, which advocates for public school districts, continues a stance allowing districts flexibility to lower tax rates with the power to return to previously voter-approved rates without another election.
Edmond Ortiz is a San Antonio-based freelance reporter and editor. He has worked for the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers. He is a contributor to Virtual Builders Exchange and the Rivard Report. His Twitter handle is @satscribe.